What Do Writers Do?

By David T. Valentin


“So, what are you going to do with a liberal arts degree?” one might ask a wide-eyed and naïve student going into college for an English degree. It’s a question our distant cousins in STEM or business don’t get asked. “I want to write and tell stories,” The student might say. Yet, is that really what we want to do? Is that really all writers do?


Let’s go back to college sophomore me. The year was confusing. All my life I had thought I wanted to be a chemist, follow the footsteps of my grandfather who had made a name for himself in the flavorist industry. Turns out Gen chem is a bitch and the interest wasn’t all there. The lab work was tedious and methodical, and the lectures were interesting but complicated and slow. I thought of switching to an English major but I thought, what the hell am I going to do with that? At the time, it never occurred to me to think of my own happiness, what really got me up and thinking, moving and feeling. Naturally… I went into finance. I thought I could get a fairly easy nine to five to pay the bills and do some writing when I come home. Made sense, right? Not quite.


While taking finance courses, I took liberal arts classes in between, one of which was a seminar on mythology and religion. For our final we had to find an artifact at a museum and write up a mythology about it. This was the perfect assignment for me. I already had a whole world and a mythology in my head. All I needed to do was find a museum piece that fit the artifacts in my story. I set myself to the task, knowing just the place. I picked out my artifact and ended up writing out a 20-page mythos, half of which was used for the assignment. I had to meet with my teacher, just to fill her in on what and how I was doing. The other students were struggling to get creative and that’s why she had the meetings. I suppose, in a way, I had cheated. She looked across from the desk and said, “what the hell are you doing in finance?” And when I had nervously and honestly shrugged my shoulders she said, “Don’t do something that doesn’t make you happy. Don’t try to please others.”


It sparked months of confusion as I wondered What can I do with an English Degree? I did what any confused teenager does in the modern era and googled What can you do as an English major? After scrolling through a slew of “You can do it, don’t listen to the naysayers!” type articles, I stumbled on an article from a writer who worked in finance. The universe seemed to have answered my call. In her article she spoke of how one of the most valuable pieces of information as someone with an English degree to know is to understand what you do, so that you can market yourself to employers accordingly. So, what is it that we learn to do as English majors? She explained an English major is taught to take large swathes of information, connect them, and then understand them enough to explain not only how these points are connected but why, all while doing it convincingly and easily enough for readers to understand. Therefore, the writer’s job is to build connections between large amounts of information. Of course, the author’s advice was for English majors looking to go into business writing, but, I wondered, could her advice be applied to creative writing?


Fast forward to Junior year of college. I had switched to studying English. It was an inclination I couldn’t ignore. I was young in the writing world and I was more than willing to fully dive into whatever it was I needed to become the best writer I could be. I attended a M.A.R.S. event (major author reading series) where our guest for the night was the Swiss Army knife of writing, Julianna Baggot, a writer whom I’ve come to admire over the years. After the reading during Q&A, a student asked Baggot, “where do you get your ideas from?” It’s an answer all writer’s dread because, in some ways, we sometimes just don’t know. But Baggot was swift, as she always is, and replied very calmly, “Writers collect things. I collect things—strange quirks from my friends, sayings, images. I collected them all and then I put them on the page. And that’s how I write.”


And it got me thinking. These moments, collected by writers and crafted into words allow us to be seen in our mundane little lives, to be noticed by a busy world that doesn’t stop for much of anything. To pause for a moment and remember the things we’ve long forgotten, the things that actually matter and make us feel alive. and when we see ourselves within the small moments and sentences of a story, we feel seen. We feel alive, like we belong.


In college I was taught that poetry—good poetry—recalls a memory or relationship that you never knew you had, that you never knew you had forgotten. Perhaps the specific smell of the lawn as you pretended to be ninjas in the Naruto world with your best friend as the music of an ice cream truck rings in the distance as kids play in the pool, laughing. Or the uncertain feeling of sitting in a school yard, hands clutching the straps of your backpack as the dean blows their whistle for you to go to your new classroom as unfamiliar faces crowd around you. You come to remember those emotions, that joy, that sadness, that uncertainty. And sometimes as we remember we become sad, as if we have lost apart of ourselves, as if we’ve betrayed our inner child by becoming fast-walking adults that never look up at the stars. The truth is, though, that small little child that lives inside us is never really gone. They’re just kind of beaten out of us because we’re afraid to daydream of a world better than our own where we belong; because we’ve been told for so long “this is just the way things are.” And in that moment of pain, we stop believing.


Another author who had been asked the same question was Neil Gaiman. In a blog post Gaiman says, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it. You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?”


Gaiman, like Baggot, believes writers are collectors of things, just in a more immaterial sense. Only in this instance writers are collectors of the imagination, collectors of how people perceive the world around them not just through their eyes but through their hopes, their joys, their imaginations their What if’s? This does not just extend to fictional stories of heroes toppling oppressive empires or evil gods—the grandiose, if you will. We don’t just see them moving from point A to point B, but we see them existing in between those points and we slow down enough to see what’s in between those points the in between where living happens. It allows us as readers, and writers, to slow down and remember the things in our own lives—our own imaginations—that we’ve long forgotten. And by slowing down we are given permission to daydream, to believe in our What if’s? in order to dream up a future path for our past and present selves. As Death says in Terry Pratchett’s HogFather, “Humans need Fantasy to be Human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape” and then later on, “You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become? (Page 335, 336 Hogfather: A novel of Discworld). Not only are we given permission to be a greater version of ourselves in the real world, we are given permission to believe that we can be the greater versions of ourselves.

It is why good fantasy that inspires envisions a world where the possibilities in our world are normalized and true. Take for example Katara from Avatar the Last Airbender. Katara wants to fight for a better future, but when she finally finds a mentor to teach her how to fight, he tells her women in his tribe don’t learn to fight, they heal. Katara then proceeds to kick the shit out of this man, and then, thereafter, the show proceeds to show us tough, capable women becoming the best of the best not by constantly making a statement of it or having women constantly prove themselves, but by showing women on an equal playing field, and sometimes greater, than their male constitutes.


Another good example is She-Ra, where its LGBTQ+ characters and their stories are not defined by their relationship to heterosexuality or homophobia. They are simply able to exist normally as heterosexuals do in our world. Which is why the Avatar series and She-Ra, among many other stories that do this skillfully, are so unique, because these shows are defined by the relationships of its own fantasy and inspired by the imaginations of its writers and not by the constraints and status quo of our own world. By showing us a world in which marginalized groups are not defined by their relationship to the injustices they experience, we are shown and inspired to believe that we can create such a world.

In my last semester as a senior in college I went on and lead a retreat known as Kairos. Most of the magic of Kairos as a participant is not knowing what the day will bring. Your phones are taken away, the clocks in the house are covered and everything is taken moment to moment. Throughout the weekend, talks are given on different topics by ten leaders. Topics like family, prayer, and trust are only a few of the topics. After every talk the participants separate into small groups to discuss the topic of the talk. It’s a weekend to slow down, take in your surroundings and really confront not only who you are, but who you are in relation to others.


At the beginning of the week my friend, who had been tasked with summing up the weekend and all the talks, said to me, “I just feel like everything I write is cliché.” And it made me think, every writer has once felt the dread of their writing being cliché and unoriginal, so why do we write? Afterall, she wasn’t wrong.


As someone who has dealt with anxiety all their life, bouncing from one thought to the next feels a little like time travel, or more like bouncing in and out of different possible future. One-minute you’re existing within the present and then suddenly existing in a future possibility you might have invented off the smallest of details. Then, just as quickly as your mind pulled together a million different possibilities, you’ve snapped back to the past, to a cringe moment in time, to a painful memory, or a nostalgic feeling. In a way, the pages of your book—your own narrative—are scattered, the pages ahead from your present moment is blotted with incoherent ink splats. Suddenly, you’re lost and trying to understand how you’ve reached this moment and you’re not sure where you should go from your present moment.


For me, reading and writing has always been a form of meditation, grounding me in the present and giving me the language to understand how the different versions of myself intersect into one narrative, one present moment, by forcing me to confront those different versions of myself. Therefore, reading and writing have always been my anchor, my therapy, to the present moment.


But if writers are collectors of small moments of our lives, the forgotten and unforgotten, the ordinary and sublime, and the small moments in between where life happens, their job, then, in the larger context of a society is to preserve the moments of the past and discover how those moments are connected to the emotions and moments of the present. By then hearing stories from others, the leaders of Kairos, and how they have overcome their own obstacles, we can see how our own past and present are connected and where that might lead us in the future. Leslie Jamison said it best in her essay “The Empathy Exams,” where she details what empathy really is. Empathy to Jamison isn’t just feeling one’s emotions as your own, but “acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see” (The Empathy Exams, page 5).


Jameson’s words remind us that, just like the stories we read, our emotions are not entirely linear points on a graph, but instead more like words on a page, chapters in a book, existing concurrently all at once to create a single book. It reminds us that our emotions are the same way, that we are several moments in time existing as one. And, like a good book, we can revisit our chapters in order to learn about our present moment, how those threads connect and then arrive at the present moment with the right tools to process through it without hopelessly floundering around. Suddenly we remember we’ve felt these emotions before and we’ve dealt with them, time and time again. By understanding how the threads of our past connect, we can then more easily read the signs to see where our future might go, like the same way we see the mechanical parts of a story, parts like themes and metaphors and writing techniques. Therefore, we might more easily dictate where our future can go.


And if we, as writers, readers, and people, understand those mechanical pieces of our stories, the same way a therapist understands the individual emotional moments of their client’s story and the way in which their past, present, and future can intersect, we can then more easily redefine those pieces in order to redefine the whole by giving people the tools to understand their experiences. Even more importantly, understanding stories and our own narratives allow us to see how we’ve arrived at our present moment, not just physically but emotionally as well. Through this process not only do we come to understand our present moment, but it also allows us to tell our stories to others so that they can to arrive at their own present moments too. Which is why we need fantasy in our present moment, which is why we need writers now more than ever to put down the things they’ve collected on to the page; Not only to dream up a better future for ourselves, but to believe that we can create a better future for ourselves.